WORDS: GIANCARLO RINALDI
“The Queen of the South will rise up,” we like to say, quoting the line which makes ours The Only Team in the Bible. Yes, there have been long spells of emotional grey skies and the drizzle of depression but, every so often, the warm sunshine of genuine happiness breaks through at Palmerston Park…
How many times in your life have you actually been aware of being happy?
I don’t mean that warm, reflective, after-the-event glow of looking back at some special time but, rather, being consciously aware at that very moment that existence could not really get much better. I can only genuinely think of a handful of such occasions that I have ever experienced – and I owe more than my fair share to Queen of the South Football Club.
The most recent came just a week or so ago at Palmerston Park. Sitting near the back of the rickety main stand surrounded by friends and family watching the mighty Doonhamers take on a Hibs side currently languishing in the purgatory – for them, at least – of the Scottish Championship. It was the Dumfries side’s first home game of the season against one of the supposed “Big Three” of the division (Hearts and Rangers being the other two, in case you needed to ask). After a nervy start, the boys in blue started to hit their stride.
Ian McShane – remember that name, an exquisitely talented midfielder – ripped possession from the Edinburgh outfit to feed the ball to striker Gavin Reilly – another boy on the up. The forward then squared a pass to his advancing midfield partner to complete a perfect triangle that begged to be guided into the back of the net. McShane duly did so and we leapt to our feet in celebration.
But that move, perfect as it was, did not inspire my moment of self-aware contentment. It was what followed which did the trick. A spontaneous hug from my eight-year-old son provided a glorious surge of feel-good endorphins. He is not a boy who is big on voicing his emotions – I blame his Ayrshire ancestry, an overwhelmingly expressive sister and the general predisposition of his gender – but he wanted to share his joy with his father. As the goalscoring roar subsided, I felt that balmy warmth of the knowledge that, for me anyway, this was about as good as it gets.
It’s a story which began just a couple of seasons ago when, aged six-and-a-half, my boy finally succumbed to my constant requests to join me at the football. I bought him his first season ticket and an incredible story began to unfold. Queen of the South started to win matches and just couldn’t stop.
This was all my son had ever known but I was long enough in the tooth to realise this was something extraordinary. Under the command of Allan Johnston, my local team swept aside all opposition to win the league by an enormous margin. Even when they fell behind in a game, I felt confident of victory. After years of following the Doonhamers this was not, believe me, a sensation I was used to. To share it all with my boy elevated the experience to the emotional equivalent of the kind of Michelin-starred dining I have rarely sampled.
Luca expressed an interest in joining his dad at Queen of the South games a year-and-a-half ago
It was crowned by an extraordinary finale in Livingston, of all places, for the final of the Challenge Cup or whatever it was called at the time. A game against Partick Thistle ebbed and flowed dramatically before ending up in the drama of penalties. Queens goalkeeper Lee Robinson used every trick in the book – and a few not included – to help secure victory. I held my son aloft as we lifted the trophy. Note that down as another self-aware happy moment.
What makes these all the more special, I reckon, is their rarity. Those who know me will be aware that my “other team” – in Italy – are Fiorentina, as I have written about for this website. They are not exactly renowned for winning very much either. I have never known what it is like to support a big team which turns up at pretty much every match expecting victory. My seasons have never started with the thought that a campaign without silverware would constitute a failure. I am not saying that supporters of giant clubs are any lesser fans than those who follow smaller sides (well, OK, maybe I am sneakily trying to imply it), but what I would say is that we have very different concepts of what constitutes triumph or disaster. If you are used to dining on lobster, it is hard to accept being served a fish supper.
But I wouldn’t change that experience. In fact, I think I almost actively chose it. I could have turned my back on my local team and selected someone much more likely to deliver glory. At my primary school in Dumfries there were plenty of kids who supported Celtic, Manchester United or Liverpool. We had not quite yet reached the stage – which we have now – where the 10-year-old match mascot at a Scottish League 2 game will proudly proclaim his favourite team is Bayern Munich or Barcelona. Instead, I decided to pledge my allegiance to Queen of the South – established in 1919 and with, at the time, no significant trophies in their history and one Division 2 title to their name which predated my birth by about 20 years. If I was hunting for glory, I was in desperate need of a better pair of glasses or a more accurate map.
How did it all begin? I am not even sure that I remember. But the sights, smells and sounds of Palmerston Park in the late 1970s and early 1980s are still prime protagonists in the theatre of my memory to this day.
It must have been my own father who first took me to see Queen of the South play, probably from our house in Brooke Street. I grew up just a short walk from my school, church and relatives as well as cafes and chip shops owned by various family members. A trip across the River Nith to watch the football was a positive adventure.
I recall it as a raucous experience. Loud and smelly with intense, throaty roars of appreciation and frustration mixed with a whiff of cigarette smoke, beery breath and pies being cremated before consumption. The thunderous thump of fans rattling the long-gone corrugated iron Coo Shed or stamping their feet in unison on the wooden floor of the main stand in anticipation of a goal still echo in my ears. What boy in his right mind would not have been hooked?
Image: Palmerston Park in 1989, by Bob Lilliman (courtesy of Groundtastic)
At 30-odd years distance, I reckon I only really had two choices in who to follow back then. It was either the team from the town of your birth (Queen of the South) or the side your dad supported (Celtic). I have always been one to choose the more arduous path.
My father was a nut for the Bhoys when he was growing up. Born in Glasgow, he continued to make his pilgrimages to Paradise long after the family ended up in Dumfries – via Crewe, if you’re interested. But somehow or another he never passed on that level of love for the Hoops to his son. Maybe he just grew out of it or maybe he did not want me drawn into the Old Firm madness. Whatever it was, I became a Doonhamer and I am proud to be one to this day.
There have been a number of highlights, even before I started taking my son to games. There was another Challenge Cup victory, another promotion season and an incredible 4-3 Scottish Cup semi-final triumph against Aberdeen. That, I believe, is the closest I have ever come to dying at a game from sheer excitement. I could feel a vein throbbing at my temple and was convinced I might expire on the steps of Hampden Park. Luckily I survived and also ended up dancing hand in hand with another man when an attempt to embrace one another went slightly wrong.
I have seen a lot of great players, some of whom went on to bigger and better things and others who remained largely local heroes. There was Allan Ball, our three-thousand appearance goalkeeper (I exaggerate slightly), the maverick Jimmy Robertson, the nobody-knows-what-he’ll-do-next-least-of-all-him Ted McMinn, evergreen Tommy Bryce, classy John O’Neill and goal machines like Stephen Dobbie and Nicky Clark. I have missed out plenty from that list, the players who made it worthwhile trudging to our slightly ramshackle ground even in the seasons where we weren’t destroying the opposition – which, to be honest, has been most of them.
Nowadays, I like to watch the previously mentioned Ian McShane in action, the trickery of winger Danny Carmichael and the dead-ball skills of Chris Mitchell. This is one of the best eras ever to be a Queen of the South fan with the team firmly established in the Scottish Championship and some steady investment being made in improving the ground. It was not so long ago that a miserly board had seen crowds dwindle to just a few hundred and the prospect of playing bottom-tier football looked like a serious long-term reality.
“The Queen of the South will rise up,” we like to say, quoting the line which makes us The Only Team in the Bible, as a club anthem claims. We know that our daily bread is likely to be defeat and disaster but that doesn’t stop us turning up in the hope of being served up some finer fare. As I sit up the back of the stand with my son, father, father-in-law and various other family members and friends, I know there is nowhere else I would rather be on a Saturday afternoon. There have been long spells of emotional grey skies and the drizzle of depression but, every so often, the warm sunshine of genuine happiness breaks through and makes it all worthwhile.